Cape Town - If 2016 introduced the Who’s Who of international rally and off-road racing to the Dakar (think Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen, Xavier Pons and Martin Prokop) then 2017 is the Year of the Rookies.
Out of the 343 vehicles expected to start the Dakar, a total of 82 – 51 bikers, 10 quad’ riders, 13 car drivers and 4 special service crew vehicles, making up nearly 25% of the field – will be crewed by newcomers to the rally.
While some rookies acquitted themselves admirably this year, taking top spots in the classification and winning stages (such as Kevin Benavides and Antoine Meo in the bike category, and Loeb and Hirvonen in cars).
The 2016 debutants lived up to expectations, with the overall top 10 featuring 5 newcomers in the bike category (Benavides, Van Beveren, Meo, Brabec and Monleon), while three greenhorns also cracked the top 10 in the car ranks (Hirvonen, Loeb and Hunt).
While no one can predict how the rookies of 2017 will perform, several come with considerable reputations preceding them, such as the 23-year old motorcycle rider Ivan Ramirez from Mexico and Polish enduro rider Adam Tomiczeck.
In the car category, UAE driver Khalid Al Qassimi (Peugeot DKR 2008) can spring a surprise in his maiden Dakar, as well as American Bryce Menzies (Mini John Cooper Works Rally) who has extensive experience in the American Baja series.
Closer to home, Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach, teamed with the experienced Rob Howie, can be a strong contender in his first Dakar.
READ: Dakar 2017 - Your ultimate rally guide
The double African Rally champion and winner of the 2011 SA Rally Championship has proven his speed and consistency, and as such he can play a valuable backup role for the Toyota Gazoo Hilux team.
Three South African bike riders, David Thomas (Husqvarna), Joey Evans (KTM) and Walter Terblanche (BAS Dakar KTM), will also have their baptism of fire in the 2017 Dakar. (See separate article).
In stark contrast to the rookies, 74-year old Yoshimasa Sugawara from Japan (Hino) has participated in 33 Dakar Rallies and also holds the record for the most consecutive finishes – twenty –in the Dakar.
Talking trucks, another interesting milestone in this class will be set by Dutchman Gerhard de Rooy (Iveco), this year’s truck category winner in an Iveco. The 2017 event will be thirty years after his father Jan de Rooy achieved his first Dakar victory in the truck class in a Dutch-built DAF.
Car category: The top teams
Team Peugeot Total: Defending champions
In January it will be thirty years since Peugeot won it first Dakar title in 1987, courtesy of the Fin Ari Vatanen in a 205 T16, in the ninth edition of the event held from Paris over Algiers to Dakar.
For this reason the French marque would settle for nothing less than back-to-back Dakar wins with their new 3008DKR, unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in October.
Dakar expert Stéphane Peterhansel drove the 2008DKR16 to his 12th win over in January, and he must be the favourite to win next year’s event again with the new 3008DKR.
According to Peugeot Sport the new model improves on its predecessor in four main areas: better reliability, suspension and air conditioning allied with greater torque at lower revs.
The French manufacturer has also kept the services of their quartet of champions – Peterhansel (#300), Carlos Sainz (#304), Cyril Despres (#307) and Sébastien Loeb (#309) – and the “dream team”, dominant in 2016, may again prove unstoppable next year.
However, the rule change restricting the air intake for its V6 3.0 bi-turbo diesel engine to 38mm could count against it in terms of torque delivery.
Mini John Cooper Works Rally: New All4 Racing for Mini teams
For Dakar 2017 Mini has developed a brand new John Cooper Works Rally car in an effort to reclaim the dominance the manufacturer enjoyed from 2012 to 2015, when the Mini All4 Racing teams scored four consecutive victories in the toughest race on earth, as well as four consecutive FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup titles.
The new car has been improved in terms of aerodynamics, thermal management and weight distribution with a lower centre of gravity, a modified chassis frame design and new engine mapping for its BMW derived TwinPower 3.0-litre turbo six-cylinder diesel engine.
Eight Mini crews will participate in the 2017 Dakar Rally, three under the banner of the X-raid Team.
Spearheading the X-raid assault is the Fin Mikko Hirvonen (#303), a former WRC specialist who took a stage win and numerous top five in-stage finishes on his way to a remarkable fourth place in his first Dakar to earn him the title of Best Rookie.
Frenchman Michel Périn, Hirvonen’s co-pilot this year will again guide the Fast Fin in the 2017 race.
Bryce Menzies (#312) from the USA is at the age of 29 already an accomplished off-road driver. For his first
Dakar attempt Menzies will be joined by his regular co-driver, fellow American Peter Mortensen.
The third X-raid Team pairing is Saudi citizen Yazeed Al-Rajhi (#306) and his regular co-driver Timo Gottschalk from Germany. The pair finished fourth in this year’s FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup.
Five more crews will represent Mini in the 2017 Dakar:
Orlando Terranova (#308) from Argentina and Andreas Schulz from Germany are Dakar veterans, and their experience will be of vital importance for the daunting route of next year’s event.
The other Mini pilots are Jakub Przygonski (#316, Poland) and Tom Colsoul (Belgium), Chilean Boris Garafulic (#314) and Filipe Palmeiro from Portugal, Qatari Mohamed Abu Issa (#322) and Xavier Panseri from France, as well as the German Stephan Schott (#325), who has contested all nine races in South America, and his Portuguese co-driver Paulo Fiuza.
Toyota Gazoo Racing: Strongest Hilux team line-up ever
Two former Dakar winners, Giniel de Villiers (#302), partnered with Dirk von Zitzewitz, and Nasser Al Attiyah (#301). with Matthieu Baumel beside him, will campaign the latest Hilux 4x4s of Toyota Gazoo Racing SA in the 2017 edition of the Dakar Rally.
Qatari Al Attiyah, a double former Dakar winner and the top-ranked world championship driver, notched up five consecutive victories on this year's FIA series behind the wheel of a Toyota Hilux to sealing the 2016 championship.
Toyota stalwarts De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz have campaigned the locally built and developed Hilux in the race since 2012, achieving a third place (2012), second place (2013), fourth place (2014), second again in 2015 and third again in 2016.
Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall says the influence of Al Attiyah will benefit the entire team: "Nasser is not only a very popular driver with a truly massive global following, but he’s also exceptionally fast."
With the new race regulations, that allow for a slightly larger 38mm restrictor in the Toyota Hilux, as well as the addition of Al Attiyah/Baumel, Hall has every reason to be upbeat about Dakar 2017.
Also new for 2017 is a partnership with Red Bull. The Austrian company already supports both De Villiers and Al Attiyah, and a tie-up for the 2017 Dakar seemed a natural fit.
The crews will tackle Dakar 2017 with the proven four-wheel-drive version of the Hilux – the same vehicle used by Al Attiyah/Baumel for the FIA World Cup – though numerous developments and performance advances ensure it will perform at the very highest level.
"While we were excited with the arrival of the two-wheel drive Hilux Evo and its promising performance, we've found significantly more performance in the four-wheel drive version during parallel testing,” says Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team principal Glyn Hall.
"However, Nasser and Matthieu's victories abroad made it clear that the four-wheel-drive is more than capable of taking on the very best cars and drivers in the world.”
The four-wheel drive Hilux has also proven to be extremely reliable, and with a bigger air restrictor – due to the average altitude of Dakar 2017 being above 2 000m – the car is sure to perform well.
Unfortunately South African cross-country champion Leeroy Poulter, who finished fifth in the 2016 Dakar event, will not be racing in the 2017 event.
He underwent surgery recently, and while he has been given a clean bill of health, he is still recovering.
He has been replaced by Zimbabwean Conrad Rautenbach (#320), a double African Rally champion and winner of the 2011 SA Rally Championship, who will be partnered with the experienced Rob Howie.
Besides the Toyota Gazoo entries the Belgian based Toyota Overdrive team features a strong four vehicle line-up for 2017, spearheaded by 2014 Dakar-winner Nani Roma (#305) and his Spanish compatriot Alex Haro Bravo.
The experienced Dutchmen Erik Van Loon (#310) and Wouter Rosegaar, who finished fourth in the 2015 event, the Frenchmen Ronan Chabot (#317) and Gilles Pillot, and Lithuanians Antanas Juknevicius (#328) and Darius Vaiciulis are also part of the team, all racing in South African built Hilux vehicles.
Renault Argentina Duster Dakar team: Crowd favourites
For the fifth consecutive year the Renault Sport team in Argentina will participate in the Dakar Rally with the latest version of the Duster Dakar vehicles, originally developed and built in South Africa.
The latest incarnation of the Duster uses the VK56 V8 engine of 5 450cc from the Renault-Nissan Alliance, it has a newly developed independent rear suspension, its centre of gravity has been improved and the spare tyres have been relocated for better weight distribution.
Being an Argentinian outfit, albeit supported by Renault Sport Technologies, the Duster team is a crowd favourite, and Emiliano Spataro (#315) and his co-driver Benjamín Lozada, as well as Facundo Ardusso (#334) and Gerardo Scicolone, are national heroes in Argentina.
This year both vehicles completed the Dakar in top twenty positions (18th and 19th), and for 2017 the team’s aim is to achieve a top ten finish.
DMAS South Ford Racing: SA-built Ford Rangers ready for 2017 event
The Ford Ranger V8s built in South Africa by Neil Woolridge Motorsport has been revamped and revised for the 2017 Dakar to be raced by former WRC driver Xavier ‘Xevi’ Pons (#311) and the DMAS South Racing team.
Pons finished his first Dakar this year in 29th position, and together with Argentine co-driver Ruben Garcia aims for a top 20 finish in the 2017 marathon event.
A second SA built Ford Ranger V8, also under the South Racing banner, will be campaigned by Bolivian Marco Bulacia (#324) and Argentine Claudio Bustos, both Dakar rookies.